Thursday, March 06, 2008
Neil Gaiman's Lucifer is a debonnaire who, en route to quitting the "Lord of Hell" gig and becoming a lounge-pianist, quotes himself, as depicted in John Milton's Paradise Lost: "Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven."
Phillip Pullman wrote a trilogy of novels in which dark matter, known to the main character, Lyra, as dust, is the stuff of consciousness and reacts to human moods. He calls the trilogy His Dark Materials out of a line from Milton's Paradise Lost.
William Styron, in writing a tale of the private hell that is living with, and, in some sense, dying of, depression, chose the title Darkness Visible, which phrase Milton coined to describe the environment of Hell, lacking the light of the Sun (i.e. Jesus and pals), but in which sight was still possible.
The first of these examples is a comic book; the second is a set of children's novels; the third is a memoir. Two are from the 90s, one is from the 50s. Two are from Englishmen, one, an American. What do these disparate episodes in the chronicles of literature have in common? They all refer to the first twenty percent of Milton's supposedly indispensable literary cornerstone.
Some books are meant to be read; others are meant to be cited in some convoluted process of literary belt-notching. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first English dictionary (so we know he could read relentlessly dull tracts of data for long periods of time) famously said Paradise Lost is too long. What chance do the rest of us have?
Art for art's sake is a wonderful concept. It yielded us Kafka's Metamorphosis; it yielded us Picasso's cubist period (or maybe that was unrelated--a simpler explanation is that his demanding social life led him naturally to see women with their legs above their heads). Art for art's sake has brought us wonders; but it can get you killed. Ulysses by the inimitable James Joyce (incidentally, how many Irish can win the Nobel Prize, really? It's a tiny island! More Irish have won than exist!) is considered the greatest novel of the 20th century. How do we know that? The only two people who've read it are Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Nabokov--both capricious assholes who shouldn't be trusted. Joyce's own wife Nora didn't read either of his two enormous novels. I'm surprised even the Nobel committee managed to do so--unless they didn't award him the Nobel prize, but surrendered it to him while they were still on page 350.
The only tract I've ever read making reference to sections of Paradise Lost past book 3 was by David Scott Kastan--who edited the edition of which I read the first three books.
I know tenure is important...but it seems to me that a great amount of what writers write is written expressly for the game of Pong, whereby critics and writers endlessly bounce the same obtuse, white ball, and death to him who allows that ball out of sight--what if an illiterate read it?!
Arnold Schoenberg (whose music--fuck you--I like) said something to the effect (and I'm quoting a glanced-at source from memory, so bear with my inaccuracy) that no art is universally appreciated. This artwork appeals to this group, that artwork appeals to that group. We call it pandering to write a book "for the masses," i.e., a book designed to appeal to all groups. But shouldn't it be pandering, shouldn't it be recognized for the shameless attempt to build one's reputation we know it to be, to write a book intended for no group at all?
The Tale of Tight-Roping Bill
by Matt Rutta
Under the big top, where the lions roar,
Where tumblers tumble, trapeze artists soar,
Where three giant rings span expansive floor,
Fan expectation of so much in store.
Clowns a’plenty emerge from their auto.
From whence do they come? Where is their grotto?
The kids have balloons, parents are blotto.
All hush up as revealed is the motto:
“The greatest show on earth”, it has been billed.
They’re performing stunts that can get them killed.
Beyond capacity the tent is filled,
Sitting on bleachers where beer has been spilled.
The jugglers juggle torches of flame,
But for the patrons it’s more of the same,
For only one man has truly earned fame:
They want tight-roping Bill, that is his name!
For they all come to see the tightrope walker,
Famous, legendary, badass rocker,
Puts on quite a show for every gawker;
None of them know they’re in for a shocker…
From up high on the wire King Bill does reign,
Over the red tent which is his domain.
Going way up there is clearly insane,
But none of them know how suffers he pain.
He shows off, betwixt his teeth clenched a knife.
Recently found out, unfaithful his wife.
Rather than live with this tension and strife,
Tight-roping Bill has despaired of his life.
He couldn’t exist, seeing her with him,
Wife, bearded lady, with Cannonball Jim.
Oh, how could she do this and be so dim‽
Could she see the outcome would be so grim‽
Quite a surprise that this short man in tights
Who conquered rafters, who basks in spotlights
Defied gravity to many delights
Was deathly, mortally, afraid of heights.
Ascending the ladder, climbs resolute,
He conquered his fear, he gave it the boot.
The only thing on his mind is acute:
The time has arrived to settle dispute.
Then Bill takes on his nefarious role,
To accomplish now his sinister goal.
He must pull it off, no matter the toll:
The adulterer shall pay with his soul!
Early that day, rigs with no abandon,
Calibrates human cannonball’s cannon,
Directed toward the lion’s den, slammin’;
The giant cat will eat Jim like salmon!
The scum of the earth and the tasteless swill,
All stand in awe of our villain named Bill.
Unbeknownst to them, oh, indeed he will
Be on the verge of dramatic self-kill.
He leapt from his platform to the trapeze.
He kicked the acrobat right in the knees.
Hijacking the bar, the criminal flees,
Swooping downward with the greatest of ease.
Removes knife from his mouth, he cuts the string
Causing elements of his trap to spring,
Releasing the lock of the caged being,
The cannon’s fuse pulled, toward jungle’s king.
All could be said, he descended with grace.
No look of horror emoted his face.
Frozen in time, he transcends time and space
By scarring the lives of all in this place.
Intentionally, he misses the mat.
Tightrope Bill hits the floor with a loud splat.
Cannonball Jim is launched in seconds flat
And proceeds to be devoured by the big cat.
As Hobo Murray gets hit with a pie,
His painted-on clown smile seems quite awry
For he needs to wipe off each tear-filled eye
As, watching dumbfounded, his best friends die.
It’s far bigger than the bloodiest mess,
Mem’ry of this psychological stress
Of hubby and paramour deaths transgress
On Mrs. Bill, Bearded Lady’s distress.
Even years later, it makes us fall ill,
Those present that night still feel quite a chill
But never forget, for there is a thrill
Telling the tale of tight-roping Bill.
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
by: Joshua Schwartz
There is a humorous maxim that states that Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans. This quip is made all the more poignant as a report just recently was published declaring Jewish Americans to be the most successful minority in the nation. And yet, with all the monetary success and the siren song of lucre, the Jewish people has yet been able to retain a reputation for passionate idealism that translates into political action.
However, this image appears to be tarnishing as the days go by. When folks speak of the "Jewish vote," more and more they refer to how a political candidate sees America's relationship with Israel. In the infamous 2000 election, our current president received a large spike in Jewish voters, longing for a candidate with a laissez-faire attitude towards Israel, an understandable reaction to the Clintonian collapse of the late 90's.
Before I continue, it is incumbent upon me to assert that to care deeply about a candidate's middle-east policy and position on Israel is right, considering the precarious position in which Israel finds herself today. In addition, a sincere concern for Israel's future is not tied to any political party, but is rather tied to the wellbeing of amcha, the Jewish people the world over.
As a twenty-one year old college student, one who has voted in but one presidential election in previous years but has had preferences and passions for the political process going all the way back to fifth grade, I must admit that it is this election which has gotten me the most excited, the most active, and the most engaged. As a nation, we find ourselves at a critical juncture in history. We are embroiled in a war with seemingly no endgame, in economic conditions becoming more and more worrying, situated a rapidly shifting and increasingly unsure world. 1% of the citizenry are imprisoned in the Land of the Free. The winds of change, they say, are blowing, with all candidates from both parties seeking to take the mantle of change and the future upon their shoulders.
It is not the purpose of this meditation to advocate for any specific candidate or policy positions (though I would be glad to do that, rest assured). Rather, it is a declaration of intent; a manifesto of sorts. I am deeply engaged in this election not merely due to my American citizenship, but as a deeply committed Jew as well. It is my Jewish neshamah (soul) that calls out to me to face the nation in which I live with critical analysis and with appreciation. With heartbreak over our mistakes and erring. With love that yearns for only the best for our great nation.
It is my Jewish soul that turns my eyes towards the plight of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and it is my common sense that no matter how many times I staff the Ansche Chesed homeless shelter through the wonderful Va'ad Gemilut Hasadim, these issues must be confronted on a larger scale. It is what I learn from my daily Torah study that simply will not allow me to ignore the voice of the oppressed, in this land, in all lands the world over. This is the voice that called out to God from Hebrew throats parched by Egyptian sands, yearning to be free. This is the voice that protests when his or her garment is unduly retained over night. This is a voice that must be as pressing as that which created the world. Let there be light that brings to light the sufferings of the innocent, the light that warms our hearts and will not allow them to freeze or harden. Let this be the Jewish vote the candidates will court, one which will be a voice, a light to the nations.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
I am working the front desk of my dorm. A couple of girls come in, ostensibly anticipating the arrival of some friends. They sit down tiredly in the lobby and wait. About a half hour later, the friends finally arrive. I do not hear what the friend has asked. All I hear is the response from one of the seated girls: “Oh… only a couple of minutes.”